When you’ve got moxie, you need the clothes to match. When you haven’t got it, they need to match even more. The more the clothes match, the more they cover.
The other neighborhood kids, their rites were normal affairs, the things you’d expect. You know, like being allowed to walk to school by themselves for the first time, or the first time staying home alone when they’re sick, or their first time watching a PG movie, first time staying up past bedtime for a special event, first (half) glass of wine allowed at dinner, or the first time steering a car while sitting in a parent’s lap. All of those were standard inductions for little kids. Typical, sensible. My initiations were much less fortunate and much more foolhardy. Mine were trials-by-fire. They hurtled, flashed, whipped, and whizzed. Roller coasters.
The sixth time my folks took me to Rye Playland, Dad stood in front of the turquoise-colored Dragon coaster, bragging to his posse about my fictitious pluck. Cousins, aunts, and uncles – both the real ones and the in-name-only – always accompanied us, along with Dad’s pals from the post office and basketball league. Cars would convene at our house for departure, with just the men driving. Although every single driver in the party knew the route to Playland, our car typically helmed the procession.
On the freeway, we queued up, each car speeding up when necessary to keep other vehicles from breaching our line. If a driver did manage to slip in, the cars parading behind him would lay on the horn nonstop. Our entire queue would deliberately slow to a crawl to punish the interloper, especially if he was a white male. We’d harass him into another lane. Once we exited the highway, two of our cars would block intersecting or merging traffic so that our motorcade proceeded through stop signs and red lights without separation. It was just so silly. But we all, including us kids, laughed the whole way to Playland, every single trip. Once arrived, our cars didn’t try to park together; every man had to fend for himself to locate spaces in what was always a crammed lot.
When Dad went to get our admission tickets, several of the uncles asked me whether I wanted to ride the Dragon coaster with them. Way too scared, I turned them down. When Dad came back with a fistful of tickets, the uncles told him I wouldn’t ride the Dragon. Dad puffed out his chest and said, “It’s me she’s waiting for. She’ll ride with me, not any of you. You’ll ride with me sugar, won’t you.” There he stood, prouder than pudding, hands on hips, with a gigantic grin. “See, it’s an adventure, and her and me, we do our adventures together. She don’t want to do ’em with nobody else. Just Daddy.”
I was eight years old, but even then I could see that to deny Dad in front of his crew would be to diss him in the supreme extreme. I was terrified of trying any roller coaster beyond the kiddie ones my little sister and I rode. But behind all his boasting, what was I to do? I turned to look for Mom. She hung back, holding my sister’s hand, smiling at me. No rescue from that quarter.
Funny, isn’t it, how children learn to read their households’ subtexts. They may not have the vocabulary to express this understanding in words, but it’s as innate a trait as their eye color. They learn to listen for the echo behind the spoken word. Learn to interpret pauses, how to weigh the gaps between words, gaps as elusive as the notes that, I imagined, slip between the piano keys. It was this nameless depth of comprehension that informed my response. If I refused to ride with Dad, he would lose face. Were this a circle of women and not men, it wouldn’t have mattered. If it had been a bunch of neighbors from our street, it wouldn’t have mattered. But this was his crew.
“Yeah, I’ll go with you, Dad.” I tilted my face up into a wash of torrid sunlight.
The guys erupted.
“Ohhh! Look at that – she only wants to ride with Pops!”
“Okay, Lisa, won’t take it personal. I get it, sister.”
“Shit! She turned us all down, ’cause she’ll only ride with Daddy!”
Dad folded his arms over his chest and rocked on his heels.
I wanted to snatch the smug grin off his face and use it to belt his tobacco-stained teeth into the next zip code. I was angry and terrified. Why couldn’t he keep his yap shut and his ego under wraps? Forever bragging and spinning out shit.
Dad draped his muscular arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the Dragon’s entry gate.
Dad sailed right past the entrance’s cartoonish, fluffy-tailed red fox sign. The fox sported excited eyes and a toothy smile. I unspooled myself from the crook of Dad’s elbow and walked back to the fox. The sign read: “You must be as tall as I am to get on this ride!” I flattened myself against the fox. I was half a head too short.
Dad called to me from his place on line. “What’re you doing, sugar? Come on.”
“I’m not big enough,” I called back.
“What’re you talking about?”
“See?” I stood beside the fox.
“Oh, get away from him. What does he know.”
“But if you’re not as tall as he is, you’re not allowed to go.”
Dad came back to where I stood. He lined me up against Mr. Fox and hovered his hand over my braided bun. “There! See? You’re fine.”
“You’re not supposed to measure the hair,” I said.
“Where does it say that you shouldn’t measure the hair?” Dad replied.
“Everyone knows you’re not supposed to.”
“Everyone!” I yelled, my hands balled into fists, my terror dissolving into anger the way cotton candy melted into sweet warm syrup on your tongue.
“Well, apparently that’s everyone but this one,” he said, pointing to his chest. And this one says, let’s go before we lose our place in line.”
As we neared the boarding platform, I let go of Dad’s hand. I didn’t want him to feel mine trembling. I zipped my legs together to keep them from shaking.
“We’re almost to the front, sugar. Won’t be long now.”
I kept my face flat and smooth as tears bit the backs of my eyes. I managed to climb up on the crowd-control railing facing the next group of waiting riders, despite my knees feeling like softened butter. A woman with curly hair and heavy kohl around her eyes looked at me. I saw her face soften. Worse, she nudged the tall man beside her. Their hair coalesced into a single mass as they leaned toward one another in a conspiratorial stance. They both turned to watch me. Her eyes were green, and his were hazel. I tried to shoot them a telepathic appeal through the sheen of my tears: Please don’t give me away. Don’t! Don’t call his attention to my fear.
The first of the many gangplanks I’d walk under cover of courage and care was the Dragon. There would be other gangplanks, some finished, burnished, some short and curt, others splintered, boundless, hewn from gnarly, limbless trunks. I morphed into a tomboy who played football with older boys, took nasty, stoic spills down staircases, or wrecked my bike without a whimper.
Later, I’d graduate -sometimes with and sometimes without honors – from the lessons gleaned while living up to Dad’s towering expectations. If I got into a fight at school, I was not to cry. If I did cry, I was to continue to fight while crying. If I didn’t get the last punch in, I was not to show my ass at home. No dating until I was seventeen. Mom parried him on that one, though, and said fourteen. My younger sister and I lay awake at night, listening to their bitter battles through our bedroom walls. Fifteen was the compromise, and Dad supplemented it with a rider: if a boy got fresh on a date, I was not to call Mom, and I sure as hell wasn’t to call, as he put it, the cracker cops. I was to call him, or any other member of the Playland coaster crew. Failure to do so, he said, would result in a most unfortunate accident befalling the said boy, even if I had a crush on him. I often asked what form this accident would take, and Dad would respond, “An accident, that’s all. A most unfortunate one.”
I’m still applying Dad’s lessons every day in my life. For his honor, and for mine.
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